Sculptor's divine inspiration turns beach sand into shrine POSTCARD FROM THE BEACH


Ocean City -- Randy Hofman crouches atop a 5-foot cone of sand across from the Plim Plaza Hotel on the Boardwalk. As a small crowd gathers to watch, faith and finesse meet in the sand, and the head of Jesus emerges under Mr. Hofman's hands.

The sculptures have been a Boardwalk fixture for two decades; Mr. Hofman learned to sand-sculpt from his predecessor, now retired and living (and sculpting) on a Florida beach.

"It's very appropriate to the beach -- it's sand, it's quick, and it's easy to digest!" says Mr. Hofman of his scenes that depict the life of Jesus. "A lot of visual candy and a little spiritual medicine."

His work in progress draws a steady crowd on this weekday afternoon. Mr. Hofman says he always sculpts on Friday and Saturday nights for the city's weekend visitors and sometimes during the week. There are usually three sculptures; on this day, Mr. Hofman is adding Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to the sculptures he did over the weekend showing the Crucifixion and the Last Supper. Volunteers from area churches (Mr. Hofman is a Baptist; his work enjoys interdenominational support) dig out the sand for him, piling it into a cone.

Just before 5, Mr. Hofman begins. He will work until after 8 this evening. The finished works are sprayed with a mixture of glue and water to hold them in place.

Like all artists, he makes it look easy. He uses his hands, a square-point shovel and a plastic crab-picking knife to carve out faces, robes, hands, tables -- whatever his biblical scene requires.

"What talent -- that's all I've gotta say," says Franziska Murphy. She and her husband, Garey, watch from a Boardwalk bench as Mr. Hofman shapes Jesus. "It's just a miracle that he can see that in his mind," she says. Although she and her husband, who live in Randallstown, visit Ocean City regularly, this is the first time she's seen Mr. Hofman work.

All afternoon, people come, watch for a while and move on, forming a steady audience with two recurrent questions. Children ask, "How does he do it?" Adults ask, "Is he paid for this?" (He does it from memory and skill; there are religious pamphlets and a jar for donations in front of the sculpture.)

"That is so awesome," says one young woman. "Look, he even has little sand nipples on Jesus!" says another member of her group.

Mr. Hofman, 42, was born in Columbia, and moved to the beach when he was in his 20s. He studied advertising design and visual communication at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y.

His Boardwalk art career began with chalk drawings on the boards before he took over the sculpting. He also owns a small company that makes wooden fish decoys, he says.

As he works, he sprays the sand with a garden hose connected to the Plim Plaza's outside shower.

Two quick cuts with the plastic crab knife and there's a sleeve; a couple more bring a hand emerging from the sleeve. Gethsemane's plants appear with the same deft touch; one stroke, one palm frond.

"This is really magnificent!" says an admiring Cookie Berger, a former Baltimore resident who now lives in Naperville, Ill., but still vacations in Ocean City. "I've never seen him construct one before."

"He takes a lot of pride in what he's doing," says onlooker David Bork, "and he enjoys it."

Indeed he does; he smiles often while he works, joking with people he knows, teasing a friend. All the while, the Garden of Gethsemane is growing, leaf by leaf.

"It's real positive," he says of his handiwork. "An open-air art form, ministry, tourism."

He allows himself artistic license with the captions under each work.

"If I feel it's a real ornery crowd, or I'm feeling judgmental, I'll write 'Father, forgive them,' " he says with a smile.

But not tonight. As sunset overtakes the beach, Mr. Hofman finishes up, carving "Thy Will Be Done" under the Gethsemane scene.

In the growing dusk, the colored floodlights illuminate his work, and Mr. Hofman smiles again as he surveys the scene.

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